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Picking up the remote after you’ve told your child not to touch it five times in 10 minutes. Slapping a friend who took the last train off the table at child care—right after she agreed with you that ‘hands are not for hitting.’ Running directly into the ocean after you’ve clearly explained that he can’t go in the water without an adult. These are typical toddler moments that all come down to one thing: self-control, and the lack of it.

Why do young children have so little self-control? The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over the emotional, impulsive part of the brain is not well-developed in children under 3. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than saying to themselves, “I really want that toy, but it’s not right to grab, so I am going to go find myself another toy.”

In fact, Tuning In, ZERO TO THREE’s national Parent Survey, found that parents’ expectations of their toddlers often outpace what toddlers are actually able to do when it comes to self-control. When parents were asked at what age children have the ability to resist doing something that parents have forbidden:

56 percent of parents said children could do this before age three (including 18 percent of parents who believed children possessed this ability by six months of age)
44 percent of parents said children could do this at age three years or older
Children don’t actually develop this kind of self-control until 3.5 to 4 years of age, and even then they still need a lot of help managing their emotions and impulses. Children don’t actually develop this kind of self-control until 3.5 to 4 years of age, and even then they still need a lot of help managing their emotions and impulses.

Life with your little one will be (hopefully) much less maddening when your expectations for her are in line with her abilities. It can be a relief to know that your child is acting his age; that he needs help to learn to manage his impulses, and that he is not “misbehaving,” or purposefully trying to drive you crazy, as much as it feels that way. Here are some ideas for nurturing self-control:
 
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